Just like most people, my husband I live on a “just barely” income. We’ve got “just barely” enough to pay the rent, just barely enough to pay our bills, just barely enough to keep groceries in the ‘frig, just barely enough to put a little bit into a savings account, and just barely enough to have a few “disposable dollars” left over at the end of the month. However, with today’s prices our disposable dollars get “disposed of” really quickly. There just isn’t much out there that you can do for entertainment that’s “cheap.” That is, there isn’t much out there unless you know where to look for it, and if you know how, you can do it on a “shoestring.”
We’ve been going on Shoestring Adventures since the day we got married. We never had much money to spend on splashy vacations, and even when we went “on vacation” stretching our dollars was the rule. Over the years, I’ve learned how to stretch our money to cover all sorts of incredible “road trips”—sometimes just for one day, sometimes for a whole week. Whenever and wherever we’ve gone, we’ve had experiences that “money couldn’t buy.” The two dozen or more photo albums that are stacked up in my hall closet prove it!
There’s little point in me telling you exactly where to go, how to get there, or what to do when you get there. Since our Shoestring Adventures are tailored to appeal to us, they may not appeal to you. What I can share with you, however, is how to create your own Shoestring Adventure—one that is tailor-made to fit you, your family, your budget, and your interests. With a few simple skills, a handy collection of “stuff,” and just a little bit of planning and preparation, you’ll be on your way!
Keep These Things Handy!
First, if you don’t have a really good roadmap for your state (or the state into which you intend to travel)—BUY ONE. I’m not talking about a simple map that’s got the major roads, like a travel atlas, I’m talking about one of those big paper roadmaps that you can never refold correctly. You can usually buy an excellent state roadmap in stores like Kmart, Wal*Mart, Walgreen’s, or any bookstore. Before you buy the roadmap, make sure that it has “Places of Interest” marked on it. To verify this, open the map to the “Legend” or “Key” (where they explain all the symbols used on the map). Places of interest are usually marked with something like a red dot, a blue square, or the like. In fact, so many roadmaps that we’ve purchased use red dots that we know simply refer to interesting places as “red dots on the map.”
Second, assemble a “Road Adventure Kit” and keep it ready to go! You can use anything from a cardboard box, a plastic milk crate, a “tub” (like a Rubbermaid storage tub you can buy at Wal*Mart), or even a nice whicker picnic basket. Personally, we use a crate; it’s easy to carry and it fits nicely into the bed of our truck (along with all our other Road Adventure items). You should start assembling your kit by including in your crate any or all of the following:
A roll of paper towels and a bottle of hand sanitizer
Picnic items (paper plate, plastic utensils, etc.)
A plastic tablecloth (like the “disposable” kind you can buy for cheap)
A couple of big “beach” towels
A small first-aid kit
A sharp knife, a can opener, scissors
Travel-sized games like Scrabble, playing cards, etc.
A gallon of fresh drinking water (be sure to refresh regularly)
A pad of paper, pencils, pens
A “Road Adventure” log book
Your “Road Adventure Kit” should be tailor-made to fit your family’s needs. If you aren’t big on picnics, the picnic items can still come in handy for fast-food meals like fried chicken or even burgers and fries! Eat your lunch outside in a park! You might be glad you have the tablecloth (public picnic tables are rarely anything close to clean), and the towels can be spread out on the benches so you have something clean to sit on.
You should also think about including in your kit personal needs (a couple of clean diapers for the baby, a box of facial tissues for runny noses, some feminine sanitary products for when you get caught “unaware,” any anti-allergic medications that you might need, etc.). Be creative! Also, let your first few road adventures teach you what you need to have along. If you’ve forgotten something, make a note of it. The next time you are re-assembling your kit, be sure to add that item. Also, it helps to buy duplicates of things like the can opener and such so you can leave them in the kit and ready to go.
Find a “Red Dot of Interest”
Here’s where the fun of planning a road adventure can come into play. First, you need to determine if this is a day trip, a half-day trip, a two-day trip, etc. Also, do you have very young children who might not do well on a longer car trip? If your trip limit is no more than a one-hour car ride one way, then look for places of interest within about 40 miles of home. Even though most speed limits on major roads are at least 60mph, never figure that you will actually average more than 40-45 miles in one hour’s driving time. You might even want to trace a general circle on the map around your home so you know what lies within your desired traveling distance. You can even draw incremental circles on your map to indicate one hour, two hours, etc., away from home. Just remember! You always have to come home, so make allowances for that when you play your Adventure.
Once you know how far you can easily travel (and return), then you can start looking on the map. Look for those “red dots of interest” marked on the map anywhere in the circumference of your desired travel radius. The places of interest usually have some short description next to them: “Pioneer Park,” “Children’s Museum,” “Historic Home.” If there are no red dots, then look for towns you’ve never visited, or roads you’ve never traveled. We’ve often been pleasantly surprised at what we’ve found: a quaint little town with some interesting shops; a long winding rural road dotted with small farms or old homes and maybe a sign that says “Fresh Honey for Sale” where we got a spontaneous “tour” of a beekeeper’s hives; a historic landmark marked by road signs.
When there are no red dots, you can also do a little bit of planning ahead by phoning a local Chamber of Commerce. Find a small town, learn the area code (if necessary), and call directory assistance for the number to the Chamber of Commerce (better yet, surf the Web for a town web site!). Ask what’s interesting in their town. So many small towns have their own historic museum, or other historic landmarks. Maybe all they have is a really great community park where the biggest tree in the county is growing!
Your places of interest choices can really be limitless. If small town parks or two-room county museums aren’t your thing, then first determine what things your family would find of interest. Surf the web, call Chambers of Commerce, or visit your bookstore or library where you can find books of “Things to Do” in your state. Your Adventure can be anything that will take you away from home for the day and create a delightful memory for your whole family!
If you have children who are older than 5 or 6, then this is a wonderful opportunity to teach them how to read and use roadmaps. You can even let them plan their own Shoestring Adventure! If you have more that one child, then you can appoint a Trip Planner, a Navigator, and a Supplies Officer. Give them specific tasks that include finding a place to go (what is it, where is it, and how far away is it), how to get there (what roads you need to turn on, how many miles to travel before you get to the next turn), and what you will need to enjoy the day (like special clothing for outdoor activities, picnic lunch items, toys and games to enjoy in the car, pillows for sleepy-heads after a long day’s outing). Instead of telling them where you’ll be going, let them tell you!
I do need to caution you: be prepared for that “red dot of interest” to turn out to be nothing. We’ve often tracked down dots that claim to be “Historic Fort” or “County Landmark” that have turned out to be nothing more than a bronze plaque on a rock at the end of a residential street. When that happens, we simply wander around wherever we are and see what there is to see. Sometimes we’ve happened upon local street fairs or windsurfing tournaments or a model train museum. Sometimes, too, all we’ve gotten out of it was a day away from home. When this happens, and if you’ve got disappointed kids in the car, then it might be a good time to find an ice cream parlor and treat them to a double scoop of peanut butter fudge ice cream!
Use your Road Adventure logbook to record everyone’s comments about the day. You can collect brochures, or restaurant placemats, or ticket stubs, and keep a memory album. If you take pictures, be sure to include a few! This can be a great basis for school reports for younger kids.
Basically, your Shoestring Adventures can be just about whatever you want them to be. Know in advance what your budget is, what will “work” for your family as far as meals are concerned (whether you can pack a picnic lunch or stop at McDonald’s), and how far from home you can venture for the time you have for traveling and adventuring. Never plan more than you can comfortably do in a day. If the place has several interesting things to see or do, then plan several repeat visits. Cramming more than just a couple of activities into the day can put the whole family on “Adventure Overload.”
I hope you enjoy your next “Shoestring Adventure” and that you continue to get away and find those “red dots of interest” that are marked on your map. Make it a habit to enjoy being together and experiencing new or different things!